Celebrating winter has always been a trademark of the United States Snowshoe Association, but none is bigger than the celebration surrounding the largest snowshoe race on the globe — The Italian La Ciaspolada.
This annual affair taking place in the Dolomites of Tretino offers vista views of deep snow mountain ranges while propelling snowshoes through quaint villages which celebrate historic and religious traditions going back centuries. Raced on the Day of Epiphany, when churches observe vows of the ages, one can recognize their own manifestation and personal renewal thru the purity of the bright white snow . . . all the while wearing ‘baskets,’ best known in America as snowshoes.
Hard to experience all of that when circling a local city park.
La Ciaspolada is much, much more than a snowshoe race. As Cindy Brochman, Minneapolis, leader of the USSSA Racers at the event and Chairperson of the 2007 National Championships in Minneapolis, remarked, “Think of racing in Italy as an experience, not just a performance on snowshoes.” A multi-year USSSA National Team member, the 2008 competition is her fourth trip to this winter wonderland.
Cindy described the course as difficult vineyard hills with a route that has changed every year, at least recently, because of weather challenges. Still a village-to-village race, but which village and how many . . . that keeps changing yearly. “Their snow this year reminded me of the USSSA National Championship we put on in Minneapolis last year — It all came at the time of the race. Theirs was less, maybe three inches of new snow versus our foot, but it added to the experience and perked everyone up. They still trucked in snow to cover roadways and race paths because, with 6000 racers, snow gets kind of chewed up.”
So at 10:30 a.m. and a peaking sun giving way to clouds, the race was on. There are two groups –‘competitive,’ 414 officially racing for position including the five entrants representing the USSSA, and ‘citizen,’ numbers approaching 5,000 including just about every snowshoe and clothing combination possible, some with sleds, sleighs, and sloths, representing many countries and continents — including snowshoers who train only in the desert with sand because that’s the closet thing they have to snow.
With her experience, Cindy was sly off the line as a seeded runner. “Racers wear bibs with numbers that start at #1 for males and #5001 for females” she explained, “and ours were yellow. I could judge my position along the course by looking for the yellow. Michayla Heil and I had toured the course the day before which helped, and I wanted to have some strength at the end. I could see the 4th place group up ahead but couldn’t get to them.” Still, Cindy finished with an award winning 12th place, the second highest ever for a USSSA representative, and two notches higher than her previous best. She missed 11th by seconds, but was “happy with my finish,” as well she should be. That’s a tough group.
Michayla Heil, 16 year old USSSA Junior National Silver Medalist from Medford, Wisconsin, raced with her dad, Steve, for their second trip here. Michayla won second at the Minneapolis 2007 Nationals as Carolyn Campbell, Ann Arbor, Michigan, took Gold.
Medford is a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity best known perhaps for being the original home to the cornerstone of every nutritious Green Bay Packer meal – The Tombstone Pizza. Developed by native serial entrepreneur, ‘Pep’ Simek, Michayla claimed his pep for the day to get her best finish in Italy.
Michayla reviewed the race remarking, “La Ciaspolada was a challenge . . . So many people at the start! As a seeded runner and at the front, I took off faster than I planned so I wouldn’t get trampled.” At La Ciaspolada, there are just female/male divisions, not age categories, so the surge at the start is tsunamic.
Michayla won her first ‘teens’ finish here this year with nineteenth place, a huge jump over 29th in 2006, but just missing the awards level.
“I passed three guys at the finish sprint (!) which improved my overall standings. I had learned from Cindy’s coaching to slow it down and have something left and it paid off. I had a great time!”
Veteran Cindy remarked on young Michayla, “She has drive!” Maybe she got it from Steve, her dad, who finished in the top one third of the men’s group.
New comers to the La Ciaspolada, Debbie and Bill Burritt of Vermont, rounded out the group. Debbie finished a very respectable 50th female, and Bill, in his first snowshoe race ever, debuted his effort on an International stage, a new entrant in the USSSA 50-59 class back at home.
Unique to this race, every finisher is offered hot tea or warm red wine to celebrate finishing under the inflated balloon arch. Cindy smiled, “I can attest the wine is a treat.”
Tradition dominates the scene. Every year, the night prior to the race, all the snowshoers parade through the hilltop moon lit villages with a candle light parade followed by spectacular firework displays down in the valleys. Custom has a witch-like character who failed to seek out the Christ child at birth and so is punished eternally by having to hand out sweets to ‘good’ children and lumps of coal to the ‘bad.’ Boys and girls visit the inns, and the costumed witches, in the best of spirits and folklore, give them all candy.
The USSSA group stays in the Village of Fondo at the Hotel Lady Maria where English is spoken. The Inn went out of its way to make group feel at home, I’m told. Taking the shuttle to the starting line, an easy choice, is made even more inviting as this is its first stop, insuring a seat and eliminating any race morning hassle.
This race and events surrounding it just seems like so much fun and a wonderful trip to take. Because one has a similar interest — snowshoeing — with all the others, “You have an opportunity to go with people you don’t know and make friends for life.” Driving to Verona, preparing to leave for the U.S.A., shopping in local stores on the way is a real treat.
Cindy said she has learned even more how to improve the travel experience for participants and is “already planning ahead for 2009.” La Ciaspolada has excitement that recalls the Tour De France. Of course snowshoe racing is on a more manageable scale, but the hoopla, crowds, horse drawn sleighs piloted by friendly ‘witches,’ banners, more crowds, warmth, local wines, and world class competition beckons all to come.
Snow enthusiasts should start plans now to join the United States Snowshoe Association in January, 2009, with winter’s fastest growing activity, snowshoeing, in a land where an athlete can experience new world snowshoe technology raced in the old world filled with tradition and intrigue — The La Ciaspolada, Italy.
United States Snowshoe Association – http://www.snowshoeracing.com
The La Ciaspolada – http://www.ciaspolada.it/inglese/presentazione.htm
UltraSuperior – http://www.ultrasuperior.com