It was a day that many snowshoers would never forget. On March 5, 2005, the United States partook in a series of snowshoe races, peacefully bringing together some of the most talented athletes in the world. It was a day that would be resurrected in the memories of many and one that would usher-in the next era for the sport … an era that would further prove its potential.
On that Saturday morning, Beaver Creek, Colo., played host to the Jeremy Wright North American Snowshoe Championships. About 500 competitors stood in silence while remembering Wright – a fellow snowshoer and United States soldier who was killed in Afghanistan. Curious skiers, race organizers, journalists, photographers, eager competitors, and many others were led in a moment of prayer and meditation. Minutes later, the race was underway.
A few thousand miles away that same day, an elite group of shoers toed the starting line of the United States National Snowshoe Championship Race in Anchorage, Alaska. The event’s organizer, Mark Elmore, was hoping the thrill of the race would spawn added fortune for the sport.
In the snow-frosted hills of New England, the Western Massachusetts Athletic Club (WMAC) prepared for its March 5 race. The Kenneth Dubuque Memorial State Forest suitably catered to the snowshoers ready to compete. The East Coast’s best-of-the-best were donning their snowshoes for a “chase” among the pine and maple trees.
Not only was March 5 significant for snowshoe racing but many days before that have proved the sport’s growing popularity. Snowshoeing is no longer an excuse for a recreational outing. It has become a competitive winter sport that has breathed newborn-like life into a 6,000 year-old concept.
Running With the Wind
The snowshoe runner has a special blend of staunch athleticism and a perfected awareness of fitness. And, Snowshoe Magazine talked to a handful of some of the nation’s top competitors.
Standing tall as a unique force of nature is Josiah Middaugh, 26, from Vail, Colo. As a triathlete by trade with a passion for snowshoe racing, Middaugh has fashioned a focused mind that allows him to go the distance.
At the most recent Beaver Creek Snowshoe Adventure Series, he took first place at all four events, including the championship race. Middaugh also placed first at the 2005 Mount Taylor Winter Quadrathlon – an intense mix of biking, running, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing.
“Snowshoeing has a very fast learning curve; if you can walk or run, you can snowshoe race,” said Middaugh. “People from a wide variety of sports can do well at snowshoe racing: cyclists, triathletes, and runners have an advantage. It’s more about aerobic capacity, not about leg speed.”
Combined with the aforementioned aerobic capacity, the key to Middaugh’s racing prowess is a combination of strength, agility and wit. As other racers are busy preparing for the day’s competition, he is studying the field.
“My strategy is to race the course as fast as I can,” said Middaugh. “I don’t wait too long to make a move. And, I like to drive everybody in oxygen debt early in the race.”
Irresistibly powerful on snowshoes is Danelle Ballengee, 33, from Dillon, Colo. Offering the sport an elegance that captures the awe of her competitors, Ballengee is one of the world’s top female snowshoe racers.
“Lately, the snowshoe racing season has been my focus,” Ballengee said. “Instead of snowshoeing to get in shape for running, I’ve been running to get in shape for snowshoeing.”
Ballengee is an intelligent snowshoer and a fierce competitor on the trails. She has accomplished the impossible by setting the Fourteeners Female Speed Record by climbing all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks in about 15 days. Nevertheless, Ballengee’s snowshoe racing accolades are endless.
Representing the East Coast is Paul Low, 31, from Amherst, Mass. Low is rated No. 1 among the WMAC’s snowshoe runners for 2005. And, he’s one of the more experienced runners that compete in today’s national events.
“I am inspired to snowshoe race by the natural beauty of the race courses and by all of the cool people that I have met while competing in the sport,” said Low. “While I perform better on shallow, hard and icy snow, I love the fact that sometimes a snowshoe race is going to be completely different than a trail race on the same course.”
Among the female snowshoers that tend to stand out among the rest is Julie Udchachon, 34, from Eagle River, Alaska.
Udchachon (pronounced ooo-cha-chon) is an experimental snowshoer that tries to test her limits and extend the boundaries that many competitors ignore.
“I snowshoed about 75 miles of the Susitna 100 in Alaska after running the first 25,” Udchachon said. “Somewhere around the 90-mile mark my body temperature dropped and I began to suffer from hypothermia. I ended up passing out at mile 98; the race was successful, but yet it was a disaster. It was a great learning experience and I plan on doing it again next year.”
Fresh off her 10-kilometer win at the United States National Snowshoe Championships, Nikki Kimball (34, from Bozeman, Montana) soars in her snowshoeing eloquence. Yet, snowshoeing is a strengthening sport that prepares her for triathlons.
“I love snowshoe running – it’s become so popular,” said Kimball. “However, it’s an adjunct to my running career because I’m a triathlete and it makes sense for me. I don’t train for snowshoe racing, I use it for strengthening. And, it’s an affordable means of training”.
A Future That Becomes Brighter by the Season
It’s no joke. Snowshoeing is the fastest growing sport in the United States. For snowshoeing the racing aspect is just a niche within the sport, but no less popular among enthusiasts and athletes.
Throughout the sport’s existence, the United States Snowshoe Association (USSSA) has orchestrated one of the more successful racing series for enthusiasts. Although the organization is based in Corinth, N.Y., it has spread the word effectively throughout the nation bringing together hundreds of racers for high-spirited competitions.
The Association handles as many as 15 races that span the snow-states, from Alaska to upstate New York. However, for the 2005/2006 racing season the USSSA will host as many as 25 events around the nation as well as its championship race in Bolton Valley, Vt.
When discussing the Association’s upcoming season and prominent future, Mark Elmore, sports director with the USSSA, said, “We are still trying to educate the general public on the benefits of snowshoe racing. Here in the states, there are a lot of races. And, there are a lot of races that pull in hundreds of participants. Our National Championship program is going well and attracting more and more participants every year.”
Lately, snowshoe racing is booming, which has allowed the Association to appreciate a lofty success rate. Other race organizers are experiencing success as well, including the Western Massachusetts Athletic Club, the Beaver Creek Snowshoe Adventure Series, and an assortment of snowshoe clubs spread throughout the states.
“Snowshoe racing is an extension of trail running,” said Ed Alibozek, snowshoe race director with the Western Massachusetts Athletic Club. “We are starting to see a lot of tri-athletes, cyclists, trail runners, adventure racers, and many others that want to continue their athletic regiment during the winter. Snowshoe racing brings together a myriad of participants.”
The world is participating as well. In fact, many European races have found great success by drawing thousands of participants.
“The USSSA travels to Italy for the Ciaspolada snowshoe race, which has 6,000 to 7,000 participants,” said Elmore. “This is an event that has been going on for the past 30 years. In some of the major events in Europe, there are routinely many athletes from countries like Australia, New Zealand, England, Whales, Russia, Morocco, Poland, Czech Republic, Kenya, Spain, and many others.”
Snowshoe racing’s worldwide attention has created an Olympic buzz. For the past couple years, associations and clubs have pooled their resources in an effort to intensify the sport’s authenticity and acceptance.
According to Elmore, in order for snowshoeing to become an Olympic sport, it must have 40 national governing bodies around the globe. Unfortunately, the winter Olympic program is basically full and for anything new to be added, an existing event needs to be dropped.
“The international snowshoe racing industry is a long way from having 40 national governing bodies,” Elmore said. “So, it’s not quite there, but that doesn’t mean that demonstration and exhibitions can’t be held.”
Since snowshoe racing wasn’t given consideration for a demonstration race at the upcoming 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy, the sport’s supporters have turned to the 2010 Games in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“Snowshoe racing has the potential of becoming an Olympic sport,” said Elmore. “We are now focusing on the 2010 Olympics to provide a demonstration snowshoe race.”