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Getting Disciplined: Snowshoe Racing

By Dave Dunham

Snowshow RacingIf you live in a cold-weather climate, snowshoe racing is an ideal way to keep your competitive juices flowing in the off-season. Once just an activity with limited, mostly regional impact, snowshoe racing has recently grown to national prominence, thanks to the efforts of the United States Snowshoe Association and the Canadian Snowshoe Athletic Association. While there are a handful of snowshoe racing specialists, most competitors in a snowshoe race are trail runners, Nordic skiers, road runners, triathletes and adventure racers out for a winter workout. Races are typically either 5k or 10k in length, but conditions can vary widely depending on the region and what Mother Nature decides to do to the course the night before the race.

1) What to expect. You don't have to be an elite athlete. Snowshoe races attract a full assortment of ability levels. Expect a range of runners, from expert racers to recreational plodders just out for a hike in the woods. You should seed yourself accordingly on the starting line; if you don't think you're going to place in the top 10, start somewhere in the middle or back of the pack. Poor self-seeding could have dire consequences for you -- you'll start much too quickly and force others to run around you (or worse, trip!).

2) What to wear. It's very easy to overdress for snowshoe racing. I've seen runners in all assortments of gear, from shorts and a T-shirt (seriously!) to a puffy winter parka and a balaclava. Usually, something in between is more suitable. You should consider the wind, sun and air temperature when choosing your racing outfit. Running tights, gloves, a hat and long-sleeved T-shirt are almost always enough to remain comfortable --assuming it's between 25 and 35 degrees. If you plan on hiking, you may want to add a poly-pro shirt or a shell. It's a good idea to dress in layers for heat retention; at the first sign of overheating, you can remove a layer. Remember: It's better to be a little chilly at the starting line than too warm during the race.

3) How to train. Training for your first 10k snowshoe race should include at least some time on snowshoes. Other than the obvious change in surface, snowshoe running differs from trail running or road running in distinct ways. You'll find that you have to sustain a somewhat bowlegged stride in order to avoid thumping your shoes together or kicking your ankles. I've found that doing a one- or two-mile warm-up prior to a race is sufficient to get the proper feel for running in snowshoes on that day's snow.

4) Get speedy. If you're aiming for a truly fast time, I'd recommend speed work in snowshoes. My favorite workout is a handicapped run. I gather three or four of my friends and we seed ourselves for a four-mile run. We stagger our starts so that we all reach the finish line at about the same time. This is a superb way to get in some fast running and have fun. You can also do intervals on hard-packed snow, but sprinting in snowshoes can be dangerous until you've developed a good sense of balance.

5) Start slow. If you're new to the sport or new to racing at high altitude, plan on running slower from the start and being out of breath sooner. If you're coming from low altitude, there are two ways to approach the elevation change. The first is arriving at race altitude at least one week before the race so your body can begin to acclimate to the conditions. If you can't afford to do that or don't have the time, the alternative is to arrive at the competition at the last possible minute. That way your body won't feel the "hangover" effect some people experience in the first 48 hours after arriving at high altitude.

Elite trail, road and mountain runner Dave Dunham has competed in 26 snowshoe races in seven states since 1996. He finished in the top thee at the U.S. Snowshoe National Championships each of the last three years.


Try it: Snowshoe racing has a quick learning curve, but it doesn't hurt to learn to walk in snowshoes before you try to run. If you've never tried snowshoeing, visit your local ski shop for rentals (usually $8 to $12 per day) or check out a snowshoe trail system that can be found at most North American ski resorts. On January 17, the American Hiking Society and SnowSports Industries America are sponsoring Winter Trails, a free snowshoe demo program at more than 100 sites across the country. For a location near you, visit www.wintertrails.org.

Gear: Snowshoes come in a variety of lengths and widths, and should be selected by your size and the intended terrain. When it comes to racing, the United States Snowshoe Association stipulates that shoes must have at least 120 square inches of "functional" surface area. While it might be hard to determine if your snowshoes meet the criteria, shoes that are at least 8 x 22 inches are acceptable. Just don't try to race in a pair of 12 x 36-inch backcountry models. Some top racing models include the Dual-Trac SL by Atlas ($289), Tubbs' Catalyst ($249) and Redfeather's F25 ($229). Many competitive racers wear running shoes bolted directly to their snowshoes. You don't need to go that far, but racing in a pair of Gore-Tex trail running shoes will help keep your feet warm and dry. You don't want to race in boots; running shoes work best.

Races: More than 50 snowshoe races will be held this winter throughout the U.S. and Canada. The U.S. has a series of regional qualifying races for the Nike ACG USSSA National Championships on March 7 in Squaw Valley, California. Check out the Race Calendar on page 62 or visit www.snowshoeracing.com for more details about snowshoe racing in the U.S. Information about a proposed Canadian snowshoes racing series should be posted at www.snowrunning.ca this winter.

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