New Champs in the Powder

A field of 40 high schoolers embarks on the 5K of the state snowshoe championship under threatening skies. Photo by Stan Lambros.

 

This winter season has been just as dry as last year.  There has been small difference: it has been “hot” by Summit County standards.  With high temperatures in the upper 30s and low 40s for most of January, the snow covering the 2013 Colorado High School Snowshoe State Championship has been thin and soft.  Most of the course is on swamp/marshland surrounding Summit High School in Frisco.  The wetlands are filled with sweet smelling sage, thick and flexible willows, and tall grasses.  A typical winter sees this foliage covered by at least two feet of snow, making a thick blanket of white.
 
The last two years have been very different.  The low snowpack and drought conditions have made the course more of a black and white polka dot frosting than a thick powder blanket.  During the day, it is a thick slush, and as soon as the sun sets it turns into a crunchy butter cream.  The willows and sage bushes are a fun obstacle, but all of us in the high country and the citizens of the Front Range want this to be much different.
 
The course last year was mucky and thick, almost like the country gravy on a chicken fried steak.  As I made the new course this year, I feared that the course would be much the same.  Race morning came, and I pre-ran the course to make sure all of the metal flagging that marked the course was still up.  It was early, but the temps were already high, and I was perspiring at a rate that I did not expect.  The course was a perfect packed powder.  However, the worst was in my mind: another pea soup course.  The start of the course is typically on a dirt access road between the school and the athletic fields.  It was so icy and dangerous that I moved the start onto the rec-path 75 meters down.  I had one of the SHS boys come up to me and ask me if it got too hot, could he run shirtless.  
 
The worst thing to hear in a snowshoe race: Can I run shirtless if it is too hot?
 
The runners marched down to the new start line.  I circled the runners around me to give them pre-race instructions.  Behind me to the north stood Cheyenne Mountain; their maroon jerseys and black pants made them look classy and powerful.  I knew that they would be a force, and that the other teams would have to have a perfect race to beat them for their fourth team title in a row.   In front of me was Smoky Hill, wearing their typical green warm-up jackets.  I wondered briefly, “I bet some of the SHHS legends of the past wore some of those jackets, and looking at this crop of runners there are certainly legends of the future in them.”
 
To my left stood the Lakewood Tigers; they were all smiles and wearing white and orange t-shirts.  Windsor’s Justin Weinmeister was somewhere in the mix of the group, but I had no clue where he was.  He wasn’t wearing a WHS jersey or shirt, and the maroon and gold of the historic Northern Colorado town was nowhere to be seen.  I looked to my right, and saw the Summit Tigers.  I flashed a quick smile at them.  We haven’t had a snowshoe team in years, and I was very proud to see students I teach everyday in the race, ready to run at their only home meet of the season.
 
Summit County Sheriff John Minor, our celebrity starter, brought the gun to the air and fired it off.  Just like that they were off, 40 of Colorado’s toughest and craziest high school runners: 23 boys and 17 girls.  I looked to my south and saw some heavy dark clouds and Baldy Mountain, a mid-range 13er, had vanished.  A cold stiff wind hit us in the face, and snow started to drift down.  Although the wind was cold, a warm feeling poured over me: the course would stay solid.  I could watch nearly all of the first mile, and Weinmeister came through the mile marker at a speedy 6:30 pace, the fastest snowshoe mile I had ever seen.  Right behind him was CMHS senior Joshua Fowler, and SHS rising star Liam Meirow.  They too were both under seven minutes for the first mile.  The beast was about to hit them.  Snow started dumping; the wind blew the heavy thick precipitation sideways, and the next mile was all up hill.
 
I was hoping to watch the race unfold on the hill to the south of the course.  The thick snow only gave me about a quarter of a mile in visibility.  I missed the entire race between mile 1 and 2.5.  As I stood at the finish line with the finish timer in hand, I saw a tall boy approaching the finish line.  I realized that it was Weinmeister when he made the turn and was headed along the perimeter of the football fields.  He won easily, and breezed across the finish line.  He is the third boy to be named Colorado High School State Champion.  Following in the footsteps of snowshoe legends Mitch Kasyon of CMHS and Kyle Ames of SHHS, he will relinquish his title next season.  He is a senior, and it will be exciting to watch him run this season on the rubber oval.
 
Finishing second for the second year in a row was Fowler from CMHS.  He was the top finisher for his team yet again this season.  He was followed SHS’s Meirow.  Just like Weinmeister, this was Meirow’s first high school state championship race.  Given that Weinmeister and Fowler are seniors, Liam is a “shoe in” (excuse the pun) for the title next year.  Much as in state XC, the three boys followed suit and finished in the same order that they did at state.  I wonder if this a preview of the boys’ 3200 in May?  Only time will tell.
 
The girls’ race was won by last year’s runner-up at both the state championship and the national championship.  McKenna Ramsay of SHS (pictured, left, as we last saw her in the fall. Photo by Paul Jaeger) won the race by nearly four minutes over the next high school competitor.  Closest on the tails of her snowshoes was a nine-year-old elementary school student from Evergreen named Alayna Szuch.  I do not know much about the speedy youngster, but Szuch was followed by Madison Lambros, CMHS’s second highest finisher in the meet.  
 
Looking at the scores so far, it was tied for the team title.  CMHS had two points from Fowler and, after omitting Szuch from the high school results, Lambros was now second.  Meirow and Ramsay combined for four points.  Meirow was followed by a slew of CMHS boys: Ben Fox, Tristan Pelto, and Zach Kuzma.  That point total gave the Colorado Springs powerhouse 19 points, surely good enough for the four-peat.  The only way that SHS could pull off the victory was if Lambros was followed by three SHS Tigers.
 
The week leading up to the event, I knew I had a full team for SHS.  It was the first time in two years that SHS would have a team for the event.  I had Liam, senior Danny Cuadrado, McKenna, freshman Emily Pappas, and freshman Jessica Horii registered for the race.  I later found out that freshman Becca Jane Rosko, a sprinter and standout rugby player, would run for us.  I knew we had a team, but I knew we would have an uphill battle taking down the veteran CMHS squad.  On Friday freshman McKinley Jones tells me in Algebra I class that she would like to run.  
 
It sounded too good to be true; Jones had a great freshman season for the harriers.  And she came through again on Saturday.  The trio of Pappas, Horii, and Jones finished behind Lambros in the placing for a 3-4-5, giving SHS the win by a mere three points.  It was an exciting moment for SHS.  The team thought there was a chance, and if it were not for those three girls, the championship would have gone to CMHS.  It was SHS’s first-ever snowshoe team title.
 
I started this race to initially get high school runners interested in a sport that I loved so much.  That first year was fun, and it grew to see the biggest high school field of runners in national championship last year.  The race now has welcomed Lakewood High School, which fills me with nearly as much pride as watching SHS win.  No matter what color the runners were wearing, I have to say that SHHS, LHS, WHS, and CMHS are some of the most polite and thankful athletes I have ever met.  They all came up to me afterwards shaking my hand and thanking me for the race.  That was one of the many highlights of my day.  
 
Growing the sport is my own personal quest, and I see it happening before my eyes.  New champions were found on Saturday.  The names of Sam Lewis and Mitch Kasyon are in the record books.  The spots are now occupied by new runners.  Who knows what will happen in the years to come.  I do not believe this is a fad.  Watch as these 40 runners take on the state track meet this May.  A lot of the names you see in this article will show up in the results that weekend.  When the 2014 race approaches, maybe you or your team will be the next snowshoe champion I write about in 2014.
 

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