Inside the ‘fringe’ and ‘hearty’ world of snowshoe racing

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The National Snowshoe Championships annually rotates around the country; Colorado was last the host in 2012. (Alexis Belec/Dreamstime/TNS)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — It was 2001, their second winter in Colorado. Not long removed from college in Michigan, endurance athlete Josiah Middaugh and his wife were down to $50.

“We weren’t sure we were gonna be able to make it another winter,” he said.

Then Middaugh heard about a race at nearby Beaver Creek — a very particular race.

A race in the bitter cold. A race through the mountains, on singletrack trail that would be hidden. A race through piles of powdery snow.

… on snowshoes.

“To be running a 10K and to take like an hour,” Middaugh recalled, “coming from collegiate cross country and track, it didn’t seem fathomable to me to run that slow.”

But that happened to be fast in snowshoe racing. Fast enough, in fact, for Middaugh to win the top prize of $4,000, reverse his and his wife’s finances and set himself on a very successful career in a very niche sport.

Middaugh is expected to be one of 150 people competing in Leadville this weekend for the 20th annual National Snowshoe Championships.

In the rolling woods of Colorado Mountain College’s campus near 10,100 feet — the highest altitude in the championships’ young history — men and women will scamper lengths of 5K and 10K for a chance to earn a spot on the globetrotting U.S. team.

Middaugh, of Vail-Eagle, will be going for his seventh national title, which would be the most for any man. He could have steep competition in Colorado Springs’ own Joe Gray, widely known as one of America’s strongest trail runners.

Unbeknownst to many, Gray chases gold on snowshoes, too.

“People always have many questions about the sport when they know you do it,” he said recently from Japan, where he finished fourth in snowshoeing’s world championships, following up his silver medals in 2018 and ’19. “It’s such a niche sport, and also in Colorado, nobody really snowshoes. They mostly prefer skiing.”

Modern-day snowshoe racing got its start in upstate New York, where in 1977 the U.S. Snowshoe Association was born. That was where Erika Gates ran cross country in high school, where her coach told the team one day about training on snowshoes.

“I was like, How do you even run in those?” she said 15 years later, now living in Westminster.

She’s still running in snowshoes. She signed up for the Leadville races, anticipating the challenge she’s craved since high school.

“The hardest race in my mind wasn’t the 30-mile race I did in the summer, it was the snowshoe races I did” in high school, Gates said. “I just remember those being so, so hard. Everything was on fire.”

Onlookers might be surprised to see snowshoe racers more dressed for the gym than winter.

“That’s because they’re generating a lot of body heat,” said Mark Elmore, the U.S. association’s sports director who started the national championship series back east.

Also the head of the national team, Elmore looks not for the best runner. “We want to find athletes who are great snowshoers,” he said.

Great snowshoers have more than lower body strength. Their core strength might be their greatest attribute, giving them balance to remain upright while plowing through snowfields. They’re strong in the shoulders, swinging their arms in sync with their stride, which is different from their summer stride, the mechanisms on their feet — often totaling 2 pounds — demanding that.

The form can appear, in Gray’s word, “wonky.” But it’s a show of physical might, Elmore said.

“It’s the fact that you’re putting a lot of power into the snow, but you’re not getting it all back. The snow absorbs a lot of that power and energy.”

And then there’s the mental strength required.

“It could be below zero, it could’ve snowed a foot, you could be in a blizzard,” Middaugh said. “I really like how epic it feels, to be out there and just suffering in the mountains.”

That’s not a preference for many, explaining in part why snowshoe racing is “a very small, fringe activity,” as Elmore calls it.

“There’s probably a few thousand racers in the U.S.,” he said. “So it’s a hearty group. It’s almost more of a club than anything at this point.”

Similar to clubs Elmore learned about in his research for the book he published in 2011, “The History of Snowshoe Racing Around the World.”

Thousands of years after nomadic tribes fashioned the first snowshoes out of tree bark and animal guts, Canadians in the late 1800s strapped wooden racks to their feet for camaraderie-building sprints.

“Those clubs that formed in southeast Canada bled over into New England and New York,” Elmore said. “It was really kind of track meets on snow. They would do events like 100-meter snowshoe hurdles, where they’re literally jumping over hurdles on snowshoes.”

Later, beginning sometime in the ’70s, a Scandinavian influx brought new Nordic traditions to the upper Midwest. “Their version of snowshoe racing really started to gravitate toward half-marathons, marathons, longer races,” Elmore said.

Today, those regions see higher turnouts at the national championships. The race annually rotates around the country; Colorado was last the host in 2012.

The lower interest here is obvious to Elmore: Skiing dominates the winter recreation scene, and while Northeasterners and Midwesterners need not travel far for snow, the best stashes in the West are higher, more remote. Thus, snowshoe racing happens out of sight and not often.

So, leading up to Leadville, Middaugh fully expects to hear the question he’s heard all along:

“Most people say, ‘Why would you run with snowshoes on?’”

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