This is the final installment in this season’s series of interviews with notable snowshoe personalities.
Tom Sobal is a true pioneer in the sport of snowshoeing, and was snowshoe running long before it became the popular winter activity that it is today. Tom has accomplished many extraordinary feats, both on and off the snow, including running the fastest marathon ever recorded on snowshoes. Tom’s passion is very evident and has inspired many in our sport.
Snowshoe Magazine: You’re known as a snowshoe pioneer. How did you get involved in the sport?
Tom Sobal: I snowshoed some growing up in NW Indiana, but there was not much snow there. I remember reading about snowshoe racing in MN. After moving to Leadville, CO (highest city in nation above 10000′) in mid 1980’s, snowshoeing allowed me to do what I liked best. That is I moved there to run trails and such out my door in the summer, and snowshoeing allowed me to do the same and more in winter. It was a natural, easy, inexpensive and similar extension of regular running. I used to run around Turquoise Lake ~16 miles in summer, but kept post holing through the snow in the winter. Snowshoes allowed floatation and made the winter loop better. I went to a snowshoe race called the ‘Colder Boulder’ in the 80’s and liked it… I saw the potential and wanted to share that with others. There were very few snowshoe races then so I started directing my own, one of which is over 20 years old now.
What changes have you seen due to the growth of the sport?
TS: Many, many more people are out snowshoeing now. When I started I hardly ever saw any other snowshoe tracks out where I lived, and if I did I could tell who made them. Now there are tracks everywhere. Popular backcountry hut systems in CO used to be used only by skiers. Now at least 30% of the visitors snowshoe in. There are more races, and a few more racers, but the racing aspect still has not bloomed like it could. I think a lot of runners like the simplicity of running, and snowshoeing adds a few complicating layers to that which are hard to overcome. Now that I live in a place where I have to commute to snow and races like the masses, I see the hassle. With climate change who knows what the future will bring.
What was/is your favorite race and why?
TS: There are many good races and most have good aspects. I do not have any real favorites, but I like the longer ones. I have done 100 mile, 50km, 26.2 mile, 20 mile, 30km,15 mile, 13.1 mile, 20km, and 9 mile snowshoe races (some of which do not exist anymore). I liked the Mt. Elbert snowshoe race they had for a few years where you looped up and down the 14,433′ peak. I also like the Turquoise Lake 20 miler, which has not changed much in 20 years. There are some races I do not like as they feature so many technical terrain and obstacle features so as they test risk taking rather than speed, strength and endurance. These are OK, just different. Maybe it is just me but I sometimes have gone out for a run after these to get in my aerobic workout for the day.
What are some of the snowshoe races you would like to do that you haven’t done yet?
TS: At this point in my life I am older and just not mentally that competitive anymore. I am sure there are lots of good women racers out there with more natural testosterone flowing through there veins than I have now. I still enjoy pushing/timing/competing with & by myself in training, but have other priorities in life and can normally get my fix without travelling a couple hours to race. I guess I can find enough challenging competitive elements (snow, hills, terrain, weather, equipment, the clock, etc.) so that other people in a traditional race are not required.
You have run the fastest marathon time in the world on snowshoes (3:06:17). Please tell us about this race and how you trained for it.
TS: I was running about 70+ miles a week with about 40 of that on snowshoes. I came off a good summer and fall of running and got right into quality snowshoe training 10 weeks before that race. I was doing intervals, tempo runs and long runs on snowshoes. I did one 18-mile snowshoe where I finished up with a 2:38 half mile. I remember snowshoeing multiple repeats over a hilly 30-minute loop at threshold pace. This was all up and down hills and mountains at 10,000′ elevation. It was an ok snow year and I was shoveling a lot of snow, which is good core and upper bodywork for snowshoeing. Also cross training by riding my bike to and from work.
There used to be cheap $89 round trip flights from Denver to Minneapolis, so even though that was a lot of money for me then, I could justify saving up to do it. I don’t exactly remember but this was when races cost less than $1 per mile. The race was just downright cold. We were standing around at the start in MN waiting for the wind chill to get above 40 below, because they had a rule in the park where it was held that events could not occur if it was any colder than that.
Finally it warmed up to 13 below, and they let us race. If you dress for it cold is ok for snowshoeing. I just focused and pushed from the start as I thought I could break 3 hours, but faded at the end. Probably from not drinking much at all and eating nothing during the race (this was pre gels and the powerbars were frozen). My brother skied out on the course to hand me an energy drink, but when he gave it to me it was frozen solid. And he was prepared for and knew about cold: he showed up from WI to sleep on our hotel floor with an extra car battery, which we kept inside the room to make sure we could get to the start. I ended up with some frostbite on my face from that. You have to respect the cold but a big part of snowshoeing is adapting to and enduring the cold, and knowing where the limits are.
How does this time compare to your fastest marathon without snowshoes?
TS:I was always a strength runner without much leg speed. Some of my best races were mountain, trail or snowshoe races at altitude where time was irrelevant. I never felt I ran what I could have in a flat snowshoe or road marathon, and only did 2:32 for the latter.
What is your proudest and/or most memorable snowshoe achievement?
TS: I like it that I have perhaps introduced others to snowshoeing and running on snowshoes. It is great to see snowshoeing become personally empowering for other people when they realize they can go out and have fun with a quiet and simple activity in all this white stuff they may have formerly viewed as a restrictive barrier.
When you are not snowshoeing, what other events or activities do you enjoy participating in?
TS: Hiking, biking, and just moving across natural landscapes in a low impact manner under my own power.
Can you update us on your recent work to provide the United States Forest Service with their trail designation for snowshoe trails on their lands?
TS: They have recognized snowshoeing as an official mode of use/transportation for trails, to go along with ~9 other types of use (hiking, mountain biking, cross country skiing, horse riding, etc.). Part of what I did was try to expand the potential types of snowshoe trails to include a spectrum of everything from an ungroomed narrow corridor through some vegetation to perhaps something like a packed/groomed snowcat wide route. I also submitted comments to expand the thinking and possibilities regarding designing trails for maximum user experience and enjoyment.
You have the potential with adequate snow cover and terrain to design a low impact snowshoe trail that does not just get you from point A to B in an easy straight line, but also provides an interesting route that enhances the user experience along the way. The freedom to get off developed established summer routes (when appropriate) is one of the great things about snowshoeing. It facilitates the potential to make snowshoeing trails more for recreation than for transportation. For this, they are developing technical design parameters for different types of snowshoe trails. Things like clearing width and height, maximum slope, tread-width, turn-radius, etc.
How do the snowshoes of today differ from some of the early models of snowshoes that you first competed in?
TS: Technology and designs have not changed all that much. One pair of snowshoes I still race in has changed little in the 20 years since I got them, and they are still good and functional.
Where do you see the sport of snowshoe running heading in the future?
TS: It will continue to grow, but with Climate change the future is uncertain. Most humans avoid living in snowy places, and that is what it takes for snowshoeing. My wife laments that fact that she did not marry a surfer, as we have taken numerous vacations to cold snowy places instead of beaches and islands that the typical human likes to visit if given a choice. We are seeing a newer younger breed of cross training type runners that are more open to using snowshoes rather than being locked into just running. Triathletes and others seem to adapt to snowshoeing more easily. I just finished acting as the Technical Delegate for Snowshoeing at my fourth Special Olympic World Winter Games.
Snowshoeing is rapidly growing among their athletes (we had ~ 50 nations represented) and it is great to see Middle Eastern and African nations getting into it, even though they do not have much snow (they train on sand). (See attached photo of a 400-meter heat with athletes from Finland, China, Japan, Hungary and Russia competing). I still think the manufacturers could do so much more with basic snowshoe designs. There are many things they could modify to improve snowshoe performance. They do not seem willing to innovate, and if the same old designs are still selling well maybe there is no incentive to retool and change.
What snowshoes do you use?
TS: I have old pairs of Redfeathers and Tubbs, some of which are better than any of the newer models out there.
My perfect snowshoe outing ___.
TS: Out there alone, with about 3+” of new snow over a good base, on a combination of packed, semi packed and unpacked routes.
What was your most unique snowshoe experience?
TS: I once ran up and broke trail into an isolated high mountain valley in February, and came upon a starving elk trapped in a confined area by deep snow. I packed out a route for it to escape to lower pastures with, being careful to hide it from snowmobilers down below. Not sure if the elk used my trail to escape or not, but when I returned in the spring there was no sign of a carcass.
Favorite post-snowshoe meal?
TS: I like any simple, healthy, natural, and easy to access food. Cold is ok. We used to live in a cold (like refrigerator cold) cabin where we did not have to put food away in a fridge to keep it from spoiling. That was great as you did not have to rummage around to find something to eat. We would cook big pots of things and just leave them sitting out until we finished eating them.
Sometimes when I adapt I really get into fat metabolism while snowshoeing and am just not that hungry after long or hard snowshoe outings.
Your best snowshoeing tip?
TS: Learn to experience a variety of snow depths and conditions to keep things interesting. Don’t always break trail or stay on machine-groomed routes. Get out there and just stop sometimes to look, listen, smell and enjoy where you are.
Thank you very much for the interview Tom. We wish you all the best in your future endeavors.
This concludes our interview series for this season. If you have any comments or are aware of a snowshoe personality you’d like to know more about for next season, please email your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.