If you’ve ever tried slogging through snow, you know it's much more arduous than walking on pavement. Now imagine running through snow with extra weight strapped atop both feet. Sound tough? It is. Extremely. It's also an official sport known as snowshoe racing, which is exactly what it sounds like: Athletes traverse a course as quickly as possible while wearing the winter-friendly footwear.
“Snowshoe racing is pretty damn rugged,” Mike Bucek, market director with The United States Snowshoe Association (USSSA), the lead governing body of the sport, tells SELF. “People are running up and down ski mountains through four or five feet of snow.”
Snowshoeing as an activity is nothing new. Humans have been using snowshoes for thousands of years. Yet the official sport of snowshoe racing is more modern—and niche. The USSSA was founded in New York in 1977 with the goal of formalizing and promoting the winter sport.
“It started as an oddity,” Mark Elmore, sports director with USSSA and U.S. national snowshoe team director, tells SELF of snowshoe racing. But in recent years, “word is getting out that this is a credible sport.” Since 2003, the USSSA has taken American athletes to international snowshoe racing competitions in countries like Canada, Italy, and France, and on an annual basis, the USSSA supports between 300 to 500 members. Elmore’s ultimate goal: see the sport become part of the Winter Olympic Games.
The USSSA sanctions “a few dozen” competitions a year, says Bucek, across snow-packed courses in Colorado, Wyoming, Alaska, the midwest, and the northeast. These competitions, which cover distances between 5K (3.1 miles) and marathon length (26.2 miles), begin in November and December with the bulk of the season taking place January through March. The culminating event of the season is the national championships, hosted by USSSA every March. The 2019 U.S. Snowshoe National Championships will be held in Cable, Wisconsin, March 8–10, and USSSA expects around 300 athletes to participate.
Here, what it takes to compete and excel in this obscure sport.
As mentioned, showshoe racing is an intense physical challenge.
Major snowshoe races are “never anywhere near flat,” says Bucek. “You're running amongst the trees and sometimes the trail isn’t packed down so you’ll have to go in deep snow.”
Because of these difficult and varied conditions, snowshoe racing is essentially a subset of extreme trail racing, says Bucek. That’s why a background in trail running is immensely helpful. Many top snowshoe racers are also accomplished road runners, triathletes, and/or bikers.
“I’m in pretty damn good shape,” says Bucek, who competes in traditional running races (either on roads or trails) on a weekly basis. “But switching from regular road or trail running to snowshoe racing is like starting all over again.” The top snowshoe racers in the country are able to complete marathons in about three and a half hours, says Bucek, which is a blazing pace of 8 minutes per mile—something the majority of road marathoners never achieve.
To handle the varying elements of snowshoe racing, specific racing gear is required.
Unlike traditional snowshoes, with their large bases and loose bindings, racing snowshoes tend to be lighter and smaller, says Bucek. “The bindings are way more secure,” he adds, “and they’re contoured to be somewhat forgiving” as athletes traverse uneven surfaces.
You may think that on said uneven surfaces, athletes would want the help of trekking poles. That's not the case though, says Bucek. “They can throw off your stride,” he explains, “and over time, they fatigue your upper body.”
In terms of clothing, participants wear whatever garb they'd don for a winter road run—typically running pants or leggings and a light top layer or two. “You’re not very bundled,” says Bucek. Thanks to the significant cardio challenge of snowshoe racing (more on that below), athletes warm up fast, and too much clothing could make them overheat.
The sport requires a steely combination of cardio, power, core strength, and total-body conditioning. Oh, and serious mental stamina.
Snowshoe racing both requires and develops power. “It’s not simply who is the fastest runner,” says Elmore, who first picked up the sport in 1989. “It’s a combination of a lot of different things,” including leg speed, aerobic capacity, and general total-body strength. To train the cardio component during the warmer months, snowshoe racers will stay aerobically fit with trail and/or road running, biking, and hiking, says Bucek.
Core strength is also “critical to success,” says Elmore, because of the soft and shifting surface on which you’re moving. With every step forward, your core acts as the stabilizing force to keep your body upright, he explains.
Also, unlike traditional running, where every stride on a hard-packed surface returns energy back up to the runner, providing spring and bounce, the soft and uneven surface of snow requires much more innate power to move through. “Your arms, upper body, chest, and back come into play much more in the snow,” says Elmore. “It’s almost like running uphill all the time even when you’re on a flat surface. You’re using more muscles than you would on a hard surface.”
Lastly, “a lot of it is a head game,” says Bucek. Participating in a snowshoe race is “excruciating.” Because the sport is so physically challenging, participants must have serious grit and determination, he says. It also requires a high level of mental engagement. That’s because on snowshoe trails, “every step is really different,” says Elmore. “It’s not like asphalt where you could close your eyes and run blind because every step is the same.” Athletes must remain mindful and focused throughout competitions.
An ability to deal with extreme and unexpected elements is also key.
“There may be times when you have to cross a wet stream—logs and everything,” says Bucek. “It’s basically adaptive trail running.” This can also include the occasional wildlife encounter. Bucek remembers a race in Anchorage, Alaska, in the 2000s during which a moose “took up residence in the middle of the trail.” The race was paused until a snowmobile could scare the animal off.
On top of that, racing conditions can vary widely. Athletes may encounter multiple feet of fresh powder that they must plow their way through—or a densely packed trail that could be easily traversed on regular running shoes. Courses also range in elevation—with some as high as 11,000 feet above sea level—and varying degrees of steepness, including some trails that chart straight up ski mountains.
All that being said, beginners don’t need any special talents or instructions to give it a try.
“There’s no learning curve involved,” says Elmore. “You can just put on snowshoes and go.” Just know that you probably won't be logging 8-minute miles right off the bat.