Beginning in the 1970s, designers of racing snowshoes trimmed them and lightened them even more, using the type of aluminum alloy used in spacecraft. The newest models now weigh as little as 16 ounces a shoe. “The modern racing snowshoe is a marvel that allows you to cover ground on soft snow so much easier,” Elmore says. “If you can walk or jog, you can run on snowshoes. There aren’t any specific skills you have to learn.”
In Europe, where snowshoe racing has been growing for decades, the Snowshoe Cup features six races in five countries from January to March. Organized racing in Europe began earlier than in the United States with the first running of La Ciaspolada in 1972.
In the United States, races are held in most regions of the country, including the Snow or No Snow Race in Flagstaff, Arizona. The courses vary as widely as the snow conditions. Elmore says there’s usually powder out West, where some events require organizers break the trail. In the East, snow conditions tend to be icier and thus the courses tend to follow packed trails, which are faster and require less effort than breaking a trail in powder. Distances are often ten kilometers, but there are also half marathons and even marathons, where the winners post times in the neighborhood of four and a half hours. While records exist for various races, the differences in course conditions make them hard to compare. Big prizes used to be awarded to race winners, but those have faded with the recent economic crises.
Chary Griffin, 62, who lives in Cazenovia, southeast of Syracuse, New York, trains six miles every other day on a packed trail. She stows a box of racing snowshoes in her car to lend to friends so they can come along. Anyone, she says, can run in snowshoes. “It’s my winter sport,” she says. “I’m serious about getting other people hooked into this.”
Scott Gall, 36, of Cedar Falls, Iowa, moved to Wyoming after running distances at Wabash College and fell into snowshoe racing. He found it wasn’t as easy as strapping on snowshoes and taking a jog. “The first ten minutes are killer no matter what you’ve been doing,” he says. “You just have to adjust to it. It’s a lot of work to have things strapped to your feet. But once you’re ten minutes into it, your heart rate settles down.”
Lambert, Griffin and Gall clearly enjoy the competition against others and themselves. (Gall finished second in last year’s national championship.) But they seem to enjoy, just as much, if not more, the bracing air, the diverse landscape, and the joy of being outdoors when most others are huddled inside. As Gall notes, it’s warmer in winter snowshoeing in the woods than running on the roads.
“Going tromping through the woods on a full moon night is awesome,” he says. “It’s not just the competition. It’s getting outside in the fresh air and doing something fun. Somewhere along the way, they told adults you can’t enjoy it when the snow flies.”
Lambert regularly trains above 9,500 feet in New Mexico, below the tree line. But she recalls the stunning beauty of a world cup race she participated in in Austria. “That was way above the trees on the Dachstein Glacier. It felt like we were visitors on some other planet,” she says. “Otherworldly.”