Over the River and Through the Parking Lots

The 2004 Tubbs Vermont State Snowshoe Championships in Essex Junction was not exactly an escape to the wilderness.

The 51 competitors found themselves competing on a fairgrounds, within sight of a Lincoln-Mercury dealership, a car wash, and a Wendy’s restaurant. Competitors ran a gauntlet of traffic lights just to reach the event.

There’s a method to Mark Elmore’s madness of holding a national qualifying snowshoe race in the middle of the suburbs. Elmore, the United States Snowshoe Association sports director, said he was trying to attract more interest in snowshoe racing by bringing the sport out of the woods and to the people. “I was really kind of enthralled at this venue,” Elmore said.

So it was, then, that competitors, gathered at a starting line in front of a frozen grandstand. They took off across rolling lawns that in the summer double as parking lots. Racers also endured the smell of french fries from a log home show the fair was also hosting that weekend.

Some of the competitors were a bit nonplussed by the surroundings, but said they understood the logic of holding a race in the middle of suburbia. “It sounds valid,” shrugged competitor Angie DeFilippi of Colchester, Vt., before the start of the race. “They seem to have a good turnout.”

A 5K competitor, Mike Bessette of Sheldon, Vt., said simply: “It’s a good place to do it because everybody knows where it is.”

Racer Eric Morse of Berlin, Vt., who finished second in the 10K with a time of 33:57 also shrugged at the surroundings, calling it little more than dashing back and forth across some fields. The Vermont woods, he said, is not really that far away from population centers. However, Morse said, the focus is on the race, not the surroundings. And, the snow conditions were good enough.

Suburban settings are often surprisingly good places for outdoor events that need lots of room, like snowshoe races, said Tom Oddy of the Champlain Valley Exposition, which manages the fairgrounds. “We have 133 acres of undulating terrain. It’s a nice course for spectators. It’s a unique way to bring it to a somewhat urban area,” Oddy said.

Competitors at the Essex Junction event said they’re used to less-than-pristine conditions when they’re training anyway. David Delano of Manhattan, said the city rarely has snow, so he trains by running through Central Park.

And Chary Griffin, of Cazenovia N.Y. has an unorthodox training method. “I got a jump on the season by running on stall bedding. Manure basically. They spread it on the field.” The soft surface mimicked the give and softness of a snow-covered racecourse, she said.

The challenge during the Jan. 24 race was less the urban surroundings and more the cold. Temperatures at race time hovered near zero degrees, and a persistent north breeze chilled things further. “Weather is a huge factor. You’re cold. Your face is freezing. It’s hard,” DeFilippi said.

Still, small knots of spectators gathered to watch, including a couple of refugees from the log home show. Elmore said turnout was probably good enough to make the Essex Junction snowshoe race an annual event.

U.S. Snowshoe Association Candy Bosworth, watching racers dash across the fairgrounds, said she hopes snowshoe events, both urban and remote, attract more spectators. “It’s as beautiful as watching ballet,” she said.

About the author

Matt Sutkoski

Matt Sutkoski is a freelance writer and a staff reporter for the Burlington (Vermont) Free Press. He also operates a small property maintenance business. In his spare time he enjoys recreational snowshoeing, trail running and hiking.