A freak Spring snowstorm blanketed the Upper Midwest setting up conditions that allowed Phillip Gary Smith, Minneapolis, MN, to snowshoe a 50 km ultra distance race (31 miles) on single track ungroomed trails in competition – becoming the only person in the U.S. to do so.
Just celebrating his 60th birthday, Phillip had entered the inaugural Chippewa Moraine 50km trail race, New Auburn, Wisconsin, expecting to run in trail shoes.
“It was an incredible set of circumstances all coming together exactly at the same time which allowed me to attempt this race on snowshoes,” Smith explained.
Race Founder, Director, and national ultra distance champion, Wynn Davis, said, “Phillip Gary Smith did the unthinkable and ran the entire course in snowshoes. After everyone had left, from atop a snowy knoll, there stood Phillip with arms raised (at the finish line). He looked like a castaway, but he had done it — finished a half-hour to spare before the cut-off to take the coveted Glacial Pace / Attrition award.”
Smith explained how the challenge developed. “First, there are no ungroomed trail ultra distance snowshoe races held in the U.S., so hearing the forecasts I realized such an attempt might be possible.
Second, early season trail races can have spotty snow on them but it is rare to get a perfectly timed storm that will blanket the distance at exactly the right time. That’s what happened here as New Auburn, being on the southern edge of the huge snow storm that pushed through the area, had a combo rain/snow mix until Friday night when the precipitation became all snow and continued through the 7:00 A.M. Saturday start.
Third, I practice a lot on snowshoes so I was prepared. When a one-day snowstorm happened upon the Twin Cities 10 days prior to this race, I was out of bed and in a local park at 2:30 a.m. to snowshoe in the fresh snow, taking advantage of the conditions. I knew the snow would be gone during the day so I got my session in when Mother Nature allowed.”
The Chippewa-Moraine course was covered in a half-foot of new snow but in the deeper woods over a foot of snow still remained from winter providing a great snowshoe window-of-opportunity. All other runners, 134 total starters, utilized trail shoes many with spikes, cleats, or miniature chains similar to automobile chains. Phillip had brought several varieties of trail shoes, “because until I arrived at the Ice Age Trail Ranger Station did I know for sure of the snow cover.”
Smith’s feat took 10 hours 28 minutes on the 31-mile out-and-back course through a narrow ungroomed single track trail on the famed Ice Age Trail of Wisconsin. As temperatures edged to freezing and above and combined with the warmer ground, the snow became trail muck, accelerated by the pounding of the trail runners.
“You’re constantly going up and down these Wisconsin hills with the valleys, as the day wore on, becoming like big vats of cream of wheat. The narrow bridges crossing the many streams and small lakes were frozen slick – and they were barely wider than the two snowshoes. Catching a cleat would be like falling in a giant Iceee. In fact, one trail runner did just that. Later, with the mud starting to form in the more exposed sections, I began snowshoeing a parallel course slightly off trail where the snow remained, criss-crossing back and forth to stay in snow.”
Smith wore the Atlas brand ‘Racers’ which are lighter than most snowshoes. “I had completed a marathon distance on groomed trails earlier this year and learned that snowshoeing on non-snow covered ground will eat these racing snowshoes up. So as I got closer to the finish I worked hard to stay in snow. Even so, the last two miles parts of my snowshoe were hanging on by a thread. This distance is incredibly tough on snowshoes.”
Nine aid stations were available to the racers and were stocked with typical trail fare – peanut butter / jelly sandwiches, chips, cookies, candies, cola, electrolyte drinks, and the day’s most popular serving: hot chicken soup.
Wynn Davis, commenting further, “I can’t tell you how great of an accomplishment Phillip set on the hills of the Chippewa Moraine. He put the smack down on that blue collar race. He was like Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke” when he gets in the prison yard fight with George Kennedy and just will not stay down.”
This will undoubtedly be the only completion ever on snowshoes for this race. Not only for the rare timing of this year’s storm but the 2009 event moves to its permanent date two weeks later: April 25, 2009, even less likely for having snow.
Phillip Gary Smith writes for Snowshoe Magazine and the United States Snowshoe Association, becoming the country’s most prolific writer about the sport. He authored the book “Ultra Superior” about the Superior Trail Races in Northern Minnesota. He is currently completing a book titled “Harmonizing – 88 Keys to Living in the Song of Life.”
Phillip gives speeches on how lessons learned in ultra events can lead to fresh insights on life. He is a founding Board Member of the Upper Midwest Trail Runners and helped conceptualize one of the country’s most unique trail running series, “The Fab 5 Fifties.” He is a correspondent for Ultrarunning Magazine.
Interest is growing in Ultra distance snowshoe races as the first 50km organized race on wide, groomed paths, The Kahtoola Wasatch Winter Bigfoot, was held January 26, 2008, in Utah. That event will be January 31, 2009.
Two Marathon snowshoe races are held annually in the U.S.: The Northwood, Duluth, Minnesota, January 17th, 2009, and the Pittsfield, Vermont snowshoe marathon, March, 2009.
The United States Snowshoe Association conducts the U.S. National Snowshoe Championships and the 21 Qualifying 10 km races. Phillip writes on each event.
For More Information:
His first book is “Ultra Superior” about the Superior Trail Races along the Northshore of Lake Superior Ultra Superior – www.ultrasuperior.com
Chippewa Moraine 50km Ultra – http://www.chippewa50.com
Upper Midwest Trail Runners – http://www.uppermidwesttrailrunners.com
U.S. Snowshoe Association – http://www.snowshoeracing.com
Ultrarunning Magazine – http://www.ultrarunning.com
Start-Line Sports Store – http://www.start-line.com