FONDO, Italy: Fondo is a little village towards the top of the Valle di Non in Trentino, a northern Italian province on the edge of the Dolomite Alps. The Valle di Non is a farming region, apples and grapes primary, with a little dairy here and there. There are cow barns in the town of Fondo, proper. There are 15th century frescoes, lovingly restored, on the corners of a few of the houses. There are archways and cobblestone streets. There’s a narrow canyon that runs seemingly right through – and below – the center of town. To call this area picturesque is insufficient, but you get the idea. Imagine a little alpine village.
Now imagine that place transformed in to one great snowshoe festival, the population of 1,450 swelling to thousands of visitors, all there to participate in the 32nd Annual “La Ciaspolada” Race. Some of them are professional athletes – like the United States Snowshoe Association (USSSA) team – come with a mind to making a showing in the race and taking home a trophy. Some of them are runners and snowshoers who want to make a respectable time and beat a personal best. Most of them are just there for the fun of being one of the nearly 6,000 participants to complete the course on snowshoes.
There are dozens of small hotels up and down the Valle di Non, comfortable little places like ours which offer room and full board for a reasonable rate. We had a beautiful view of a pink sunrise over the mountains from our room. The USSSA team stayed there too and we got to share their table at mealtimes.
What’s on the mind of a competitor on race day? Pretty mundane stuff. Things like: How many bathrooms will be at the start line? And at the finish line? Why isn’t there more coffee? In the case of Charlie Wertheim, a three time member of the USSSA National team, “Where’s my luggage?” Jesse Haynes, a member of the Atlas snowshoe team, read the ingredients on a package of something called EuroCream (a hazelnut spread) and wondered if it was something he should eat. Mark Elmore, the USSSA sports organizer, public relations guy, and mother hen to the team, wondered about getting the gear to the start line and where he was going to park the van when he got there.
Shortly before the race, Timmy Dusick, who was running his second Ciaspolada, and Nathaniel Grabman, who runs for Haverford College, piled up their gear for a little show and tell in the hotel lobby. Timmy, who’s a vociferous advocate for the sport, runs for Tubbs and Nathaniel runs for Atlas. A lot of the racers run on a “direct mount” snowshoe – they’ve bolted a running shoe to the rotating claw where us regular snowshoers place the ball of the foot. (Cyclists, think clipless pedals.) There’s no binding to slip, your snowshoe is pretty much part of your foot when you use this kind of mounting.
The Valle di Non runs an incredible operation during the time of the race. We took a short walk up the street from our hotel to hop a shuttle bus – packed to standing room only – to the village of Romena. From our standpoint at the front of the bus, we saw Nathaniel and Jesse warming up by running to the start line. In Romena it was a party with stands selling hot drinks, gear manufacturers showing off their wares, places to buy hats and gloves, and crowds of snowshoers, dressed in everything imaginable, from full on subzero snowsuits to running shorts and tank tops.
When the gun went off, the first wave of runners came across the line, with the runner from Kenia out in front just ahead of last year’s winner. Jesse wasn’t far behind them, then Nathaniel. Charlie, who’d started with the second set of runners was making tracks to join the front pack. Jesse later told us that he’d picked Charlie to win. “He’s crazy fast,” I said. “YEAH, he is,” said Jesse. “If he’d had a lower starting number, he would have come in out in front.” Mark worked pretty hard to get low numbers for his team, but he was only able to come up with two. Jesse and Nathaniel got to start with the front pack, while Charlie and Timmy were with the second group.
Just behind the competitors, a mass of humanity fills the air with the noise of thousands of snowshoes crunching. Snow flies everywhere and if you’re watching from the sidelines, the scene is transformed from a race to a parade. Everyone is in, all ages, sizes and shapes. Parents carry their little ones in backpacks on their shoulders or town them along in sleds. Dogs wear Ciaspolada numbers and while they’re not wearing snowshoes, their walkers are. Every kind of snowshoe goes by, from traditional wood and lacing to brand new plastic racers with running shoes bolted to the crampon. An 83 year old participant carries a sign boasting that this is his 6th race year. A tall Australian in a jester’s hat and shorts with the flag of his country runs by. Three little girls push each other, laughing in their snowshoes, while beside them, a Lycra clad Amazon strides forward, looking straight ahead and ignoring all the noise around her. Everyone is there, a lady in a fur coat next to a man in a clown wig, a big guy in a giant maroon sombrero and a family in matching homemade Ciaspolada t-shirts. It takes at least an hour to get everyone through the starting get and even then stragglers and late sleepers still tumble out of the constantly arriving shuttle busses, snowshoes in hand.
Meanwhile, six kilometers ahead, the racers are coming into town, up the hill on the snow that’s been trucked in the night before. The narrow streets are lined with banners and spectators and police with infinite patience. The town plaza is packed with people, an excited announcer calls the winners as they come in and the cameras are everywhere. The American team is all there and while they didn’t take the podium, they’ve finished very respectably with three of them coming in with the top 100. Nathaniel says the snow was gritty and that he’d come out too fast, and Mark says that his guys aren’t used to running on this kind of snow. Charlie looks almost exactly as he did at the breakfast table that morning, as though he’s thinking he might just go for a run.
We got in to town to late and missed the awards ceremony for the men, though we did get to see the women stand on the podium and spray the news media with champagne. The runner from Kenia, Mukunzi Magdaline Syombua, a tiny bundle of speed that completed the course in 34.23, took the women’s third place.
Runners came in for the rest of the afternoon while the announcers pulled lottery tickets and gave away loads of fabulous prizes. When things started to slow down we headed back to the hotel. Later that afternoon, we get coffee and sit in the hotel lobby with the team, talking about the race and about snowshoeing in general.
Competitive snowshoe racing is a little more than 10 years old. Charlie, our pick to win, has been in it from the get go, and Timmy has been at it for a good long time as well. All of the guys were runners, though they talked about cross-country skiing too. Timmy and Jesse swore by stair climbing as good training for snowshoeing – that and running with leg weights on. Nathaniel and Charlie talked about working on something called “leg speed” – which I’m guessing is exactly what it sounds like. Jesse talked about how you had to push through running at the speed where you feel comfortable – “no getting comfortable, you gotta work past THAT!” Training on hills is important too, everyone says you can tell who has done hill work and who hasn’t when you’re on the course.
They all talked about how great the sport is, how much they love to snowshoe, and how hard it is to get good sponsorship. While they might get their gear from a sponsor, they still have to cover their travel expenses take time off from their day jobs. It’s logistics like expenses and work time that kept the American numbers small – the early USSSA list included seven runners, but only four were able to make it all the way to Fondo.
Mark talked about how snowshoeing as a competitive sport needs greater visibility in order to make all of their lives a little easier. There’s a lot of talk about bringing snowshoeing to the Olympics, but Mark is a realist and very well informed. He says that the IOC won’t pick up a sport unless it will make good television and that in order to get snowshoeing added, an existing sport will have to be dropped.
Then we moved on to talking about snowshoeing for regular people. Timmy really earns his title of Tubbs Ambassador, taking people out for demo walks on his own time. “A lot of people just hang up their running shoes in the winter,” he says, “but there’s no need for that. You can be outside all winter long and it doesn’t matter how icy it is.” I ask him what he recommends for folks just staring out. “It depends on what they want to do and what kind of snow they’re in. Floatation and maneuverability are the two things you’re looking at. But you want to have a good first experience. A lot of people try it once and never go out again because they’re on the wrong shoe for the snow they’re in.”
Later, I brought up the poles versus no poles question. “In racing, absolutely not,” said Mark. Charlie agreed, no poles. “One time, I was running behind this guy, he kept swinging his poles up in my face…I wanted to wrap them around a tree. The poles, not the guy.” But Mark said they’re great for touring, they aid in stability for people who are unsure on their feet, they’re good for working the upper body, and they help if you’re carrying a load.
They passed my camera around to check out our race photos. When you’re running the race, really running it, you don’t get any sense of the massive crowds that are on the course. At one point, when we were still at the start line, I looked down the valley and there were people on snowshoes as far as I could see.
I’m already planning to run – okay, walk – the race next year instead of just watching. The USSSA team was all encouragement. “You can totally do it. You SHOULD totally do it!” I’m not going to compete, I’m not even going to pretend to try. Still, the sheer joy of taking part in such an exciting and friendly international event is something no snowshoer should miss. Take the endorsement of the USSSA to heart. You should TOTALLY do it.
La Ciaspolada Site – http://www.ciaspolada.it/inglese/index.htm
Official Results from the 2005 La Ciaspolada (in Italian) – http://www.sportdue.it/dati/ciaspolada2005/default.htm
Valle di Non Tourism – http://www.valledinon.tn.it/Inglese/index.htm
Hotel Allarice – http://www.hotelallarice.it/presentazioneinglese1.htm