SNOWSHOE MAGAZINE FEATURED ARTICLE:

The 2011 USSSA Championship Marathoner Surprise

Snow Wars: Return of the Marathoners

2011 DION United States Snowshoe (USSSA) National Championships

At the 2010 USSSA in Syracuse, NY there was much talk about the dominance of triathletes in the top-slots of the podium, however, at the 2011 Championship in Cable, WI…not so much. A marathoner “vibe” held sway at the 2011 USSA championship on Mar. 11 as hard-pack snow on the groomed trails favored the light, fast feet of the road runner contingent.  It all points to a show-down in 2012 in Frisco, CO.

Bottom-line in 2011 – no sugar snow. Sugar snow and hills sucked the life out of many a ‘shoer in the 2010 National Championship and favored eventual 2010 winner Josiah Middaugh, of Vail, CO a professional XTERRA racer and off-road triathlete, who finished in 52:51.

As four-time USSSA Nationals Champion Middaugh noted after his 2010 win, “I think of snowshoe racing as a pure test of fitness. There were several athletes in the (2010) race that were faster roadrunners than me but that’s not the only factor in snowshoe racing. I think that is where my triathlon training and altitude training becomes an advantage. Anything that slows the race down benefits me, and the hills and soft snow in New York were the perfect recipe.”

By comparison, at the 2011 USSSA event, Eric “H” Hartmark, 33, of Duluth, MN a 2:21 marathoner training for the Olympic Trials next January took the gold in 41:41, in only his second snowshoe race after qualifying at the Boulder Lake race in Duluth on January 16. “I wasn’t sure what to expect and went out with the head group. I wasn’t sure what to expect and was surprised to find myself in the lead and hoping I hadn’t made a rookie mistake,” said Hartmark.

At Boulder Lake, his first snowshoe race, Hartmark (known as “H” to some of his training buddies) was introduced to snowshoe racing in rough, icy trail conditions and finished 3rd behind experienced national-class, Duluth-based training partners Kelly Mortenson and Greg Hexum. At the Mar. 12, 2011 championship, the “H” may as well stood for “hard-pack and hills,” a combination of trail factors that favored the fleet-footed Hartmark who trains in the hilly terrain of Duluth.

While the conditions at Syracuse, NY in 2010 were very hilly, the course in Cable, WI in 2011 was also hilly – over 700 feet of climb – with several steep hills sending ‘shoers to their hands to scramble up (see Cable, WI course GPS here).

With over an 11-minute gap between the top male racer of 2010, a triathlete, and the 2011 winner, a marathoner, one factor stands out from the rest  – snow conditions on the course.

Notably, the silver medalist for both 2010 and 2011, Scott Gall, IA, a professional XTERRA racer and racer on the World Mountain Running circuit registered a 41:49 in 2011 and a 53:15 in 2010.  In some sense, it looks like Gall is an excellent example of a “total” snowshoe racer in that he competes at the highest levels in all conditions.

But, the road runners took note of the firm footing in Cable, WI and worked it to their advantage in 2011.

“It definitely helped to have hard pack, “said Erin “Jungle Chicken” Ward noted, a 2:42 marathoner who brought home the women’s bronze medal at the 2011 USSSA event. “The more (trail conditions) are like a road race the better it is for me,” she noted.

Analysis: The Snow Strikes Back

In snowshoe racing course lay-out and especially course snow conditions play a unique role as deciding factors for performance compared to other similar endurance events. It appears that the biggest factor in snowshoe racing is – surprise – the snow.

For those outside of the sport of snowshoe racing, the weather may seem to be the biggest factor, but in snowshoe racing, the racers are accustomed to a supposed extreme – the cold weather – and know how to dress for racing in it.

So, all other factors being equal the cooler temperature isn’t typically a deciding factor for experienced snowshoe racers. And while course lay-out can play to certain strengths of strength or fitness in road and trail races as well as triathlons, in snowshoe racing the snow conditions are key.

Beyond physical conditioning the “gear factor” is increasingly important to ‘shoers when gunning for that extra few seconds. Of course, the primary gear of ‘shoers is – snowshoes. So, given different snow conditions many racers are reviewing different styles of snowshoes, and looking for an edge. In the case of the USSSA sponsor, Dion Snowshoes, ‘shoers are toeing the line with different customizable Dion configurations – ex. deep cleat, versus standard cleat – depending on snow conditions (for notes on the use of different snowshoes for a race, see the Feb. 1, 2011 article “Snowshoe Shuffle a Sugar Snow Challenge” here).

Episode III: Revenge of the…Mountain Bikers? Mountain Runners?

Following the 2011 win Hartmark was asked whether he planned on defending his title in 2012. “It would be fun,” he said.

Scheduled for Frisco, CO, on February 24, 2012 with a starting elevation of 9,100 feet, (see tentative course description map here) and in Middaugh’s backyard, Hartmark’s hill training in Duluth will likely be put to the test if he makes the trip to defend. Then again, Hartmark will be training for the Olympic marathon trials scheduled for January 2012 and could be in top form.

If Middaugh and Hartmark both toe the line in 2012 it could shape up to be an epic marathoner versus triathlete show-down.

Then again, this is snowshoe racing and the ability to adjust to surprises — and snow conditions — is a unique aspect of the sport. As Dave “Biscuit” Schuneman, 33, of Duluth noted at the 2011 Nationals, “Mountain biking and snowshoeing compliment each other. They both have a strength factor that adds.” In fact, several of the top age-grouper and elite racers also had mountain biking and mountain running (note the USSSA 1st place woman Brandy Erholtz, of Colorado, who is also a National Trail Running Champion) place backgrounds.

The fact is, the snowshoe racing season is relatively short. Endurance athletes of many stripes either dabble in it as a secondary “off-season” sport, though many also commit to it as a primary “winter” sport. For many it is exciting to witness is how advances in snowshoe racing conditions, gear, race strategy, and course layout in this emerging sport rapidly change as both the levels of competition and participation continue to quickly grow.