Snowshoeing’s European Roots: La Ciaspolada 2006

It’s about nine in the morning. We’re standing in front of the Stella di Alpi, a friendly little pension in Ronzone, Italy. There are maybe 15 of us including Mark Elmore (the USSSA coach), several top rated US snowshoe racers, and their families. We’re talking gear and nonsense and waiting for the bus to shuttle us to the start line, up the road in Romeno.

A bus blows by us, no intention of stopping. A few of runners decide they’ll head to the start line on foot and most of them take their snowshoes with them, leaving spouses and support to handle their other gear. More busses go by, packed to bursting and not stopping. Cindy Brochman, Charlie Wertheim and Stefan Wagner (from Munich) stand in the street hoping to hitch a ride to the start line. James, who’s there to see his wife, Chary Griffin, run the race, returns to the hotel lobby for the third time to ask the manager to call for another bus. Mark Elmore is getting worried because he’s holding a pair of snowshoes that belong to Jules Embry, who ran to the start line 45 minutes ago.

All this adrenaline before the race even starts! Welcome to La Ciaspolada. This snowshoe race has run for 33 years in the heart of the Dolomites. Participants come in all levels, from top-level athletes like Greg Hexum, who races for Atlas and Ed Myers, a top rated master’s adventure racer, to little ones who are just starting to walk. More than 6000 people from all over the world come to the tiny villages of the Val di Non every year to participate in this festival of snowshoeing.

The USSSA has an impressive turn out this year. There are 19 Americans ranging in age from 15 to over 60. This year’s runners include three women – Cindy Brochman, Chary Griffin, and Mary Fagan. Charlotte Fiondella, whose husband Paul is here to run, is playing the role of “spouse participant” and will walk the route after the pros clear the start line. Not everyone is here to run; there are supportive spouses and parents to fill the critical part of cheerleader. Everyone is excited about the race.

We reach the start line just as the gun goes off. A sea of snowshoe runners leaves the gate. The start line has its share of adrenaline pounding events. Greg Hexum loses a shoe – the entire shoe, not just the snowshoe – and has to stop to recover it while a wave of runners presses down on him from behind. He tells us later that there’s quite the brawling atmosphere at the gun. “It’s nothing personal, it’s just that there are all these obstacles in the way and you want them behind you. I saw a few bloody noses and I’ve got blood on my jacket…” Greg also mentions the noise of all those snowshoes and tells us that Jesse Haynes wears earplugs when he runs. Chary also describes the route as an obstacle course, though it’s a little different from her position in the pack. “People just stop,” she says, “right in front of you. You try asking them to move but they’re just standing there, talking on their cell phones, I’m not kidding. You have to go around.”

The sixth of January – race day – is also the day of La Befana. This Italian tradition marks the end of the Christmas season. La Befana was a witch like character who declined when invited to join the three wise men on their search for the Christ child, and changed her mind later. She hands out candy to the good kids and coal to the bad ones. At the start line, there are at least a dozen people dressed up like La Befana, pointed hats and gray wigs – but with snowshoes on their feet.

La Befana is just one of the costumes in the parade that makes up the citizen’s portion of La Ciaspolada. There’s a team of more than 20, all wearing matching Wiley E. Coyote hats. There’s any number of dogs. There are participants in traditional clothing, lederhosen and walking sticks and wooden snowshoes, and intense striders in dressed to conquer Alpine peaks. There are a handful of folks who seem to have found a way to transform La Ciaspolada in to some kind of drinking game, including one group transporting their own keg to the finish line.

The course isn’t easy. The route is between seven and eight kilometers – the documentation is notoriously nonspecific on the distance. There are several good climbs and as you reach the top of each, you can see the rolling route in to Fondo. The last push is a steep climb up through the streets of the village. The snow, churned up by thousands of snowshoes, is exactly the texture of white sugar. It’s this quality of the snow that leads some of the US runners to comment that the smaller plastic snowshoe favored by the European athletes might actually be the way to go on this race. Also favored, a funny little traction-less basket – the ciaspolada – for which the race is named. You’d need a six-inch claw, minimum, to get traction in this snow, so why not go with floatation?

Prizes at La Ciaspolada go to the top 30 men and the top 15 women. There’s no consideration for age group. This is too bad, because two US masters runners, Ed Myers, and Jim Graupner, place very high for their age group. Zach Rivers (US Junior National) also made excellent time and isn’t shy about saying he came in 15 minutes before his dad, Steven Rivers. The women show strongly, with Cindy Brochman taking 18th and Mary Fagan taking 26th. (The entire US team received special recognition during the awards ceremony later that day.)

Everyone is smiling broadly at the finish line, especially Mark Elmore, who did manage to deliver the missing snowshoes in time. Jim Graupner is positively radiant, downplaying his speed. “I would be thinking about strategy,” he says, “but then I’d look up and see this beautiful place where I was running and think about how incredible it is that I’m here!”

La Ciaspolada Official web site:
Results from Ciaspolada 2006:
Hotel Stella della Alpi:
United States Snowshoe Association:

About the author

Pam Mandel

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