John Ziino admits that in his spare time, he likes to dream up oddly unique activities to occupy his fellow residents of New Berlin, Wisconsin.
“You see, I stay awake late at night,” explained the 81-year-old Ziino, “trying to think of different things to bring into the city.”
While he tackled bringing an art competition and Christmas parade to the city earlier in the year, his winter brainchild of a snowshoe race on March 2 would be a real head-turner.
Ziino’s dream, appropriately christened the Prospect Lions Snowshoe Roar, would be the first ever snowshoe race run not only in the greater Milwaukee area but in the entire southeastern Wisconsin. The Roar would be an organic affair utilizing the facilities and manpower of the City of New Berlin, and the will and mission of local civic organizations like the Lions Club.
So, what business would a guy who has never been on snowshoes, doesn’t run, and has never participated in a running competition, much less organized one, want in setting up a snowshoe race?
“I thought it would be neat!” he shrugged.
Ziino first contacted the folks who run the Braveheart Snowshoe Series and discussed hosting a series connected race in the metro Milwaukee area. After receiving the initial support of Braveheart, Ziino contacted some of the veteran race organizers from Northern Wisconsin who provided enough encouragement and logistical pieces to embolden him to take a chance on the race.
Ziino, who is the special events committee chairman for the Lions Club, secured funding and support through that organization. The City of New Berlin then provided the park, shelter and grooming. And once Ziino got Northern Lights Snowshoes out of Medford, Wisconsin to provide snowshoes for people to use, the race was on.
In a Wisconsin winter idling through a vicious snow and thaw cycle, Ziino was blessed with a fresh eight-inch snow the previous Wednesday, and a string of 20 degree temps to keep it around. Snowshoers were greeted on Saturday with a solidly compacted trail that skirted some open ball fields for the first and last half-mile, and meandered through rolling forest for the middle two miles of the race.
To say it was a rookie snowshoe crowd would be putting it lightly, as sponsor Northern Lights lent out 31 pairs of snowshoes to the race crowd of 50.
Miss New Berlin, Raquel Bruening, sat on a picnic table in the shelter sipping hot cocoa and waiting to see off the participants. Looking beautiful in her tiara, sash and heeled boots, she was asked jokingly why she wasn’t doing the event.
“Maybe I should, it looks fun,” said Bruening. To her credit, Bruening quickly ran home, secured some boots and workout clothes, got fitted for a pair of snowshoes, and joined the fun, tiara and all.
Jake Kiser, a high school cross-country and track standout at Germantown High School, had tested out some snowshoes his coach loaned him earlier in the winter, but was leery about the idea of a race.
“I had no idea about pacing, the effects of snow conditions, or anything,” said Kiser. “I was totally clueless!”
When the horn finally started the Roar, Ziino proudly watched as the lead group darted out.
“I kept envisioning those old snowshoes!” he said. “That first guy just started running like he had nothing on!”
While the woods loop provided a scenic backdrop and packed trail, everyone was gassed by the open areas of the course. Most discovered the new meaning of “sugar snow,” as the first and last sections through open field quickly feathered over with powdery drifts from the cross winds.
“That last part was miserable!” said a red-faced Michelle McKenna crossing the line on fourth place for the women. “I felt like I was running on sand dunes!”
Still, in true snowshoe racing spirit, everyone who finished stayed on to watch the last of the finishers roll across the line. Back in the park shelter, the chili provided by the local boy scout troop warmed-up competitors, and there were plenty of awards, door prizes and laughs to go around.
Ziino hopes that next year will draw double or triple the participants. He also hopes that the high school competition grows significantly.
“I think it can happen,” said Nate Schreiber. “The kids that raced today loved it, and they will go back and tell their friends—that’s how this whole thing will get moving.”
Ziino was impressed by the range of racers, from ages five to 76, that competed in the Roar. In the end, this may be the final nudge that Ziino needs to slip into a pair of snowshoes himself for next year’s race: “I said to myself, ‘if a 76 year-old can do it, I can do it too!’”
Though youth might have won the day on race course, the veteran John Ziino put on a clinic in fun and showed everyone how to organize a good time.