The 2006 United States National Snowshoe Championships were a bit like a debutante ball for the sport. Snowshoe racing, once a quirk, then a sideshow, was ready for its close-up.
The event over the weekend of March 25 and 26 in Bolton Valley Resort, Vt. attracted 216 competitors, more than double the number at last year’s season finale in Anchorage, Alaska.
Of those, 155 competed in the national division, plus another 20 in the junior 5K. The rest competed in citizens’ division races, just for the fun of snowshoe racing.
Granted, Vermont is more accessible for many of us in the Lower 48 than Alaska. But the fact that competitors came from places like Minnesota, Colorado, Mexico, France, Florida and yes, Alaska, meant something bigger was going on here than a convenient trip to a New England ski resort.
The sport is just hitting critical mass, said Mark Elmore, the USSSA Sports Director. Enough road runners, bike racers, recreational snowshoers and other winter outdoors people have tried snowshoe racing, and liked it, to tell their friends, he said. The rush to race is on.
A case in point is Kasie Enman, 26, of Huntington, VT. She won the female division, with a time of 53:07. Her forte is trail running, and she’s brand new to snowshoe racing. She did her first race in January and qualified for the nationals by winning the women’s division in January.
(Improvement Watch: Enman’s time at the Nationals was more than eight minutes faster than her qualifying time in early January, on an almost identical course. And note her age. Enman is a youngster, so she might have quite a future.)
The men’s division winner, Greg Hexum, 35, of Minnesota is a more experienced snowshoe racer than Enman, but like many snowshoe competitors, Hexum has a long history of foot races, in his case starting 23 years ago. This is Hexum’s first national championship, and he won with an impressive time of 42:42.
The competitors barely caught the tail end of a weak Vermont winter. The snow on the course was soft and thin in spots. Streams along the race course were coming to life for the spring. It was mud season. For some, it made things hard, because the slush caused many racers to slip and fall. Others, like Hexum, said the snow was perfect, because that’s what they trained in during the past mild winter. “It suited me well. We had snow like this all winter, wet and heavy,” he said.
Others struggled in the gloppy, melting snow. “The footing was just horrible. The other two races I did this year were on powder, with very good footing,” said Peter Maksimow, 27, of Springfield, Mass. “There was streams to cross. I had a terrible race. I just didn’t feel good.” He didn’t do that badly, finishing 28th with a time of 50:48.
Many competitors mentioned the hills. Flat ground is hard to come by in Vermont, and Bolton is particularly rugged. “This is probably the hardest course I ever did,” said Paul Lang, 25, of Eau Claire, Wisc., who finished 48th with a time of 54 minutes even. Repeating the familiar pattern, Lang is a recent convert to snowshoe racing, having been a road bike competitor for years. Lang said the biking boosted the strength and endurance in his legs, which helped him charge up Bolton’s steep hills.
The course was unforgiving. Competitors immediately climbed a long hill from the get-go. The middle of the race took them downhill, but just when they thought they could breath easier, more climbing brought the racers to the finish line.
“It was tough, relentless. It never stopped,” said Carol Kane, 60, of Weston, Ct. “I was very relieved to see the finish line.” But would she do it again? “In a heartbeat,” she replied.
Jimmy Gobeil, 28, of Sherbrooke, Quebec, agreed the hills were tough, but the event was a great alternative to his usual sport, foot races. For once, he was out of the city. “You’re in the forest instead of the streets. It’s like hiking, but you make the same effort as a race. It’s amazing, nature. You don’t have cars, no lights. You just run,” he said.
Gobeil’s buddy, Jean-Nicolas Duval, 32, of Montreal also embraced Bolton’s hill. “It was a rolling course, good, steep uphills, mixed terrain,” he said.
Hills or not, almost everyone said coming to Bolton was worth it. “It was a ball, just an awesome day,” said Bill Tylutki, 59, who lives near Rochester, N.Y.
Gobeil said he is surprised eastern Canada has no snowshoe race association (aside from the Madtrapper Snowshoe Series in Quebec). Western Canada has the Yeti series, but there’s nothing in the east, which is why he crossed the border into the United States for the Bolton race. Gobeil said he hopes the rising level of publicity regarding snowshoe races will inspire races for the demand on Quebec, Ontario and the Maritime provinces, he said.
Next year’s Nationals will take place in either Traverse City, Mich. or Minneapolis, a nice central location that might attract even more competitors than this year. Association members said they see continued growth in the sport, no matter where the race is held.
“The racing push began in 1979. From there, it’s been a hard push, a hard struggle,” said Candice Bosworth, the USSSA’s Executive Director. “But now, the races themselves are making it fly. The momentum is there.”
— Competitors on the way to the race had some moments of doubt: The early spring Vermont landscape was brown and bleak, not a hint of snow anywhere. Several competitors said they thought they’d been sold a bill of goods when they were told in the days before the race there was plenty of snow.
— The reassurance came only when they began driving the steep hill up to Bolton Valley Resort. Midway up, snow miraculously started to appear. At Bolton’s base lodge, elevation 2,100 feet, it was still the middle of winter.
— Competitors came to Bolton from all over. Three countries, the United States, France, Canada and Mexico were represented. Racers also came from a total of 21 different states.
— Jim McDonell, 53, of Minneapolis competed Saturday in the nationals 10K, the citizens’ 5K and on Sunday in the relay team race, each time dressed in his trademark sleeveless white T-shirt and running shorts. Saturday was warm, near 40 degrees, and like everyone else, he sweated heavily by the end of Saturday’s events. But he stood outside in the damp air for a long time after the race, looking comfortable.
— Sunday was colder, but there he was, before, during and after the relay race, either running like a madman or chatting leisurely with fellow competitors. His only concession to the cold Sunday was a pair of black earmuffs. All he said about the weather was he wasn’t cold, and he’s dressed this way in colder weather.
— Course officials were benevolent hardasses, keeping spectators away from the raceway, and generally laying down the law. Spectators weren’t allowed at the starting gate at the 10K nationals, because foot traffic would wrecked part of the course. Instead, the crowd gathered about 200 yards into the race, to watch a big clot of competitors chug up one of many long, steep hills. The race directors’ vigilance paid off: Competitors said the event was remarkably well organized.
— Jimmy Gobeil got a laugh as he set off in the relay race Sunday. To psyche himself up at the start, he let out a yell not heard since Howard Dean’s famous scream in the 2004 presidential race. The fortunes of Gobeil’s team, all Canadians, went better than Dean’s presidential ambitions. The team had the second fastest time, with 39:49.
For more information on the United States Snowshoe Association, visit http://www.snowshoeracing.com. The photo courtesy of Jeb Wallace-Brodeaur/Times Argus.
The USSSA sponsors include Atlas Snow-Shoe Co., Kahtoola, Eastern Mountain Sports, Crescent Moon Snowshoes, GV Snowshoes, NEOS Overshoe, ORS Snowshoes Direct, Columbia Sportswear Company, Hammer Gel: Endurance Fuel, Thrifty Car Rental, and Aruba Sport Eyewear. Snowshoe Magazine is a proud supporter of the USSSA.