A hearty group of winter athletes will congregate in the frigid conditions of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, this weekend to compete in a physical test of endurance against Mother Nature and a mental battle against themselves.
From Feb. 27 to March 1, the U.S. National Snowshoe Championships will take place in Eau Claire, labeled the "Hot Bed of Snowshoeing" by Snowshoe Magazine. Ardent snowshoers of varying locations and ages will walk or run across the snowy Wisconsin terrain and will compete for a mix of personal pride, awards and for the most elite, a spot on the U.S. National Team.
While it may not have the same mainstream popularity as other winter sports such as cross-country skiing, work continues to bring more attention to snowshoeing, according to Mark Elmore, sports director for the United States Snowshoe Association (USSSA), which is headquartered in Corinth, New York. Over the course of the 2013-2014 winter, 3.6 million people participated in snowshoeing, while cross-country skiing and alpine skiing saw more than 4.2 million and over 9 million participants, respectively, according to SnowSports Industries America.
Many athletes who typically gravitate to snowshoeing are other endurance athletes such as marathoners, runners or cyclists, who utilize the sport as a great cross-training opportunity.
Snowshoe racing isn't necessarily about who's the fastest runner, but rather the best snowshoer. It's about who can fight the elements and maintain the dexterity and stamina to run through different types of trails held on various terrain. Courses can consist of groomed snow, or deep, powdery snow in wooded areas. On some occasions, if winds are blowing hard enough, trails can be left completely exposed in parts.
Still, Elmore said, it's also a great recreational sport simply because there's no learning curve as with skiing or snowboarding and people can just strap them on their feet and head outside as long as snow is on the ground.
"If you can walk, you can snowshoe and if you can run, you can snowshoe race," Elmore said.
The modern equipment is a plus when it comes to getting new participants to snowshoe. Racing snowshoes weigh less than a pound apiece and are far different in style than the cumbersome wooden racket style that would have people waddling around like a duck, Elmore said.
"The new equipment allows people to get out and enjoy the winter in the snow, whether they're running or just hiking around," he said.
Snowshoe competitions can take place all over the country and the national event rotates to a different region each year. At nationals, there will be six different races, some that require qualifications and some that don't, including a children's 1-kilometer race. There is also a 5K and 10K race, and those events are typically the most popular due to the close similarities to distance running, Elmore said.
To prepare for the harsh weather, snowshoers need to wear several layers to help vent heat while running and have a good base layer to help wick away moisture from their skin, so that whenever they stop they don't catch a chill. Besides the essential hat and gloves, sunglasses are vital to protect from the sun's glare off the snow.
The USSSA holds numerous qualifying events for several thousand participants who wish to compete in the nationals and the snowshoeing season is largely dependent on Mother Nature and Old Man Winter, typically lasting from early January to the first weekend in March.
During nationals, the top five men and women who finish the 10K national championship race and the top three men and women masters athletes 10K (ages 40 and older) will be selected to comprise the national snowshoe team, which competes in international competitions worldwide, Elmore said.
Michelle McCarthy, 34, of Gladstone, Michigan, located in the state's Upper Peninsula, will be one of the contestants in the national championships. McCarthy has already won several competitions this year, including the rugged Noquemanon Snowshoe Race in Marquette, Michigan.
In 2002, McCarthy was a Division II cross-country athlete at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, but during the winter, snow and ice-covered roads made it difficult to run, so her father suggested she pick up snowshoeing. Soon, she began entering races that were being held throughout the state and by later that year she had earned a spot on the national team.
One of the most appealing aspects of competitive snowshoeing, in her view, is that it's not for the faint of heart, she said.
"You have to be ready to be out in the exposed elements pushing your body as far as it will go," she said. "It's fun being in the woods and with others all out there to [do] something few actually do," she said.
In order to withstand the rigors of snowshoeing and prepare for competitions, McCarthy said she snowshoes about once a week, but most of her training comes from weight-bearing exercises and cardio workouts.
During his time with the sport, Elmore, who works for the Raleigh, North Carolina, parks and recreation department, said he has competed in a plethora of challenging conditions. Whether it's the effects of high altitude at courses over 10,000 feet in elevation in the Rockies, races that were held in subzero temperatures or snowstorms that brought near whiteout conditions, there's always an inherent challenge.
"You never quite know what the weather's going to throw at you," he said.
With 25 years of snowshoeing experience, Elmore said the two primary things he enjoys are the personal challenges as well as spending time with his fellow competitors and the support crews who help organize the races.
While acknowledging that everyone has competitive urges, snowshoers typically don't pit themselves against one another as much of them look inside themselves for a challenge, according to Elmore.
"It's really everybody's against the weather and against the conditions and the trail and the nature and what not," he said. "It just makes it really fun to do that."
From elite athletes to beginners, to father-and-daughter teams competing to overcome health issues, there is a diverse set of individuals who flock to snowshoe competitions.
"Snowshoers are really a unique group of people, just wonderful to be around," Elmore said.
At an earlier race this season, McCarthy said she encountered a group of women who became friends through snowshoeing and reunite every year for races. There is also a "Braveheart Series" where men and women race wearing kilts, leaving bare legs exposed, she said.
The USSSA and the International Snowshoe Association continue to promote the sport in the hopes that one day it will be recognized as an Olympic sport, Elmore said. However, he added that the process takes time and is very involved.
To help do her part to develop snowshoeing, McCarthy said for the last year she has spent a lot of time teaching an elementary and middle school snowshoe team in Gladstone, where she, along with her dad and another parent, provide instruction by taking them on practice laps around a baseball field.
In McCarthy's opinion, she thinks that others are beginning to treat snowshoeing strictly as a winter sport and less of a cross-training option.
"[It's] the perfect winter sport because you can do it no matter how cold, no matter how snowy, the only issue is when you don't have snow you can't snowshoe," she said.
Throughout the country, more parks and recreation departments are beginning to offer snowshoeing to their patrons, and every winter there's a "Winter Trails Day" which offers snowshoeing instruction at various sites around the U.S., Elmore said.
"It's just a great community in general, the people that gravitate towards being outside and enjoying nature and the winter during that time of year," he said.